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How China is building high-speed railway connectivity in Southeast Asia

Updated: Aug 14

China and Southeast Asian countries are developing a pan-Asia railway network that will connect the whole region. The project, if materialized, will transform the economic and geopolitical interactions between China and the Southeast Asian nations.

China-Laos high-speed Railway network was completed in 2021.

China is expanding on its ambitions to connect its mainland with the major economies of Southeast Asia as it embarks upon a partnership with the ASEAN nations to create a railway network that will become one of the greatest railway projects in history. The development of high-speed rail networks (HSR) would not only be historically important but also hold economic and geopolitical significance for the whole region.

The endeavor has been in the works for some decades however China was not the first partner of the ASEAN countries to bring this project to life. The pioneer of the railway infrastructure, Japan, was initially in talks with Thailand to develop a network connecting the whole country however, certain financial disagreements led to the withdrawal of Japan. Then came China, grabbing the opportunity at once and entering into talks with Thailand for the creation of a high-speed rail line throughout the country. China itself had created its own nationwide high-speed railway network only in the mid-2000s however the growing might of the Chinese economy and its ambitions to expand connectivity with the neighboring regions allowed it to enter into talks with the ASEAN countries soon after.

Figure 1: Map of China- Southeast Asia

What would the China-ASEAN high-speed railway network look like and why is it considered to be such a historical feat?

The first and foremost reason for this is that the railway network aims to connect a region with a very challenging terrain. The railway lines would pass through the mountainous regions of countries like Laos and with the lack of general infrastructure in some of the countries, it would be very essential to create a robust network of bridges and tunnels to facilitate the railway lines. This creates an additional cost for the developers. Making this project a reality would definitely thus be a strong victory in the case of all the parties involved.

Figure 2: All three routes of the China-Southeast Asia high-speed railway project

As a part of this project, China attempts to build a 3,000km railway network that will start from Kunming in Southwestern China. The network will pass through Yuxi in China to Vientiane in Laos towards Bangkok in Thailand to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia all the way to Singapore. This Kunming- Yuxi- Vientiane- Bangkok- Kuala Lumpur- Singapore line is the central line of the railway project. Apart from this two more lines will also be created that will be the western and the eastern route. The western route starts from Kunming to Dali in China towards Yangon in Myanmar to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapur. The eastern line starts from Kunming to Yuxi in China towards Hanoi and Ho Chin Minh in Vietnam towards Phnom Penh in Cambodia all the way to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapur. All three routes of the railway line start from Kunming and intersect at Bangkok in Thailand.

Figure 3: China- Loas high-speed railway route

The first leg of the project involved the development of the railway line from Kunming to Vientiane in Laos. In 2021, the project was brought to completion as a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. For China, this railway line kickstarted the ambitious project of moving into Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. For Laos, this was even more significant as it connected the country to China via railway and this would have a major economic impact on the country that is otherwise considered to be one of the least developed countries in the region primarily because of its landlocked geography and a difficult terrain to navigate. 70 per cent of the cost of the infrastructure for this railway line was borne by China and Laos agreed to contribute the rest. For Laos however, even shouldering 30 per cent of the cost of development would be a burden because of the economic situation of the country.

However, the project was completed to give way to connecting the rest of the region to China. The ambitious project appears to be promising in many regards. It will not only connect the economies of the ASEAN nations and China but also create conditions conducive to stronger people-to-people relations over time. If this project bears fruit then it may also translate to the other areas of contention between China and the Southeast Asian nations. The case in point is that of Vietnam.

Figure 4: The Paracel Islands have been a contentious issue between Vietnam and China

China and Vietnam have had tense relations and have even been involved in the territorial dispute over Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. It would be interesting to see how China and Vietnam interact in the context of this project and if it has any impact on their geopolitical disagreements in the South China Sea.

Amidst all the hopes of connectivity, prosperity and security that this China-Southeast Asia high-speed railway project brings with it, there are certain aspects that need to be considered if we have to understand the future of this project. One of the most important areas in infrastructural projects like these is the area of finance. Southeast Asia is in need of the development of such infrastructural projects as the railway networks of the past are slowly disintegrating and taking their colonial legacies away with them. However, partnering with China on such projects has not always ended well with many countries. What the West calls the ‘debt diplomacy’ of China essentially refers to their approach of providing credits in the form of loans that would be repaid as the projects become functional. In the meantime, China would agree to provide all the manpower, labor and intellectual force needed to make the projects a reality. However, the catch here is that in many cases the projects do not provide the expected yield and the receiving party gets trapped in a mountain of debt. The case of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka is a prime example of this.

This approach may create hindrances in the development of this project, however, it should also be taken into account that the success of this railway line would be very beneficial for the Southeast Asian nations as they will be directly connected to China. More so for China as it would find a direct doorway to exert its influence in the region more rapidly.

Another important thing to consider in practicality is China’s relations with the countries involved in the project and also the internal political dynamics of these countries. As can be noted, the western line of the railway route goes from Kunming and Dali in China to Yangon in Myanmar. Myanmar, as of recently has been going through a grave internal political crisis that has also resulted in a civil war and a refugee crisis in the neighboring countries. As the civil war is still ongoing with lesser hopes for reconciliation in the future, it may create difficulties for the project itself. Apart from this, it is also significant to note that some countries of the region have been wary of China’s debt trap diplomacy approach, such as Malaysia. Malaysia forms an important piece of this structure. The Malaysian leadership however had halted the $ 20 billion 688 km railway line project connecting southern Thailand to Kuala Lumpur and had decided to postpone the 350 km railway line project connecting Malaysia to Singpore. Even though the projects are merely halted and not abandoned, this still suggests a certain deficit of trust that may be present regarding China’s debt-fueling policies to steer massive infrastructural projects.

China may still continue to push for this project because it will allow China access to the maritime route that is currently in control of the ASEAN nations. Additionally, it will connect China to Singapore, the most vital economic power in Southeast Asia. As Singapore has deeper relations with the United States, it would be a major strategic win for China to have physical connectivity to the country and its ports. The railway network would not only connect the people but also become a major source of trade in goods among these nations. An economic win for all parties involved.

It would however be interesting to see how this project plays out in the future.

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